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February 7, 2019

Story Tropes: How Do We Twist a Cliché?

Lonely tree on a rock outcropping in the ocean with text: Adding Surprises to Our Story's Tropes

Sometimes we’ll hear writing advice like “avoid clichés,” but what does that mean when it comes to story tropes? After all, while clichés are usually considered bad, tropes can be downright helpful.

In other words, there’s likely more nuance in that typical “avoid” advice that we should understand. For instance, if tropes can sometimes be helpful, how do we tap into that helpfulness?

Most writing advice, no matter how eye-rolling, contains a kernel of truth, but there’s also a risk of taking the advice too far. Let’s take a closer look at clichés and tropes, and how we might make them work for us. *smile*

What Is a Trope?

Every genre and medium of storytelling uses tropes—common themes or story devices. Tropes are so common in all types of stories that a whole website is dedicated to examining them all.

Yet at the same time, tropes are often derided by people for being cliché or predictable. That’s partly what makes a trope a trope: Audiences can fill in the details of a trope without the story having to spell everything out.

And that predictability can be bad—or used for good.

When Are Tropes Bad?

That “shortcut” aspect of not having to spell everything out points to the weakness of tropes. Tropes are bad when we rely on them to carry the work of the story, when we don’t develop unique storytelling or worldbuilding details but instead assume the trope formulas can do the work. Lazy writing fails to show rather than tell.

For example, in a lazy story with a high-school-bullying trope, the popular kids would be cardboard characters with no development, the lack of support from adults in dealing with the issues would be over the top, and the final taking-a-stand triumphant speech would ring false. The audience would be told that the bullying would magically end because the speech was oh-so-inspirational, but they would have no reason other than the trope to believe that the case.

When Aren’t Tropes Bad?

That said, trope-style shortcuts can be related to our genre’s expectations. The promises at the heart of each genre—happy-ending romances, solved mysteries, and captured thriller villains—help define the genre, so it’s obviously not always bad for readers to know how to fill in the blanks.

Also, tropes can be shockingly true-to-life. In real life, if the light bulb burns out in the basement, we go down there to fix it, regardless of how many horror movies we’ve seen. In real life, we might do mean things to get back at someone. In real life, we might even *gasp* fall in love at first sight.

In other words, we see common tropes in stories because we relate to many of them. We relate to them because we’ve lived through them, either directly or through friends. If we try to eliminate all tropes, our story will be less realistic and it’ll be harder for readers to relate to the story or characters.

When Are Tropes Helpful?

Tropes become downright helpful when we view them from a marketing perspective. Story tropes help readers know what kind of story we’re going to tell.

If clichés are bad, how can tropes be helpful to our story? Click To TweetTropes fulfill that function in the same way that book covers often conform to genre clichés so readers know what to expect from the story inside. For many, the tropes are why they like a story, so they’re certainly not something to avoid.

Readers often have favorite tropes they seek out, so tropes can help our story find our readers. Romance novel fans are often familiar enough with the common tropes to claim favorites (“I can’t resist an enemies-to-lovers story”) and ones they avoid (“I can’t stand secret-baby stories.”).

Some authors include a trope list on their website for their books, identifying the tropes found in each of their stories. By playing matchmaker for potential readers, they hope readers will find a book they’re more likely to enjoy—and thus will give better reviews and be more likely to read another book.

How Do We Avoid Being Too Predictable?

Audiences want their expectations met—but in a surprising way, so we need to take the usual trope ideas and play with them. Twist them. Turn them on their head.

In other words, we have to add enough surprises to keep readers’ interest. Obviously, we can just change details of the usual script, but beyond the obvious, what can we do to add surprises?

Twisting Method #1: Layer Tropes

One way to be less predictable with tropes is to layer them. A romance story could include a secret baby trope and an enemies-to-lovers trope and a fake engagement trope.

Each of those layers would increase the chances that we’d avoid creating a paint-by-numbers formulaic story. By forcing us to think about how those elements would all play together (would one be primary? or all be minor? or would one misdirect readers? etc.), we’d ensure we couldn’t lazily fall back on the shortcut and let the trope carry the story.

Twisting Method #2: Play with Subtext

Every story’s tropes contains subtext that add meaning to our story. For example, in paranormal romance, the “fated mate” trope creates an obvious subtext of our characters having a soulmate, a One And Only. In addition, there could also be the subtext of a lack of choice or free will, or depending on the story, there might be a sense that success is just being handed to our characters without needing to work for it.

So another way to add a measure of unpredictability to our story’s tropes is to create a different subtext than expected. Or we could reach the same subtext in an unusual way.

As I mentioned in the post at that link above, I once read a book about two immortals fated to be together for eternity. Several hundred years later, they’d drifted apart, and for the story, they were trying to make it work again. That was a unique, non-cliché approach to the subtextual issues with the fated mate trope.

Twisting Method #3: Add Nuance and Realism

Because tropes are so common that readers are familiar with them, we have the opportunity to use readers’ knowledge against them by not following the script as they expect. If we make a trope play out differently—more nuanced or realistic—than they expect, we can create a moment of unpredictability that grabs readers’ attention.

One series that landed on my Keeper Shelf last year was Roni Loren’s The Ones Who Got Away. Her second book in the series, The One You Can’t Forget, has a fantastic example of using readers’ expectations of a trope against them.

How do we make sure our story's tropes aren't too predictable? Here are 3 methods... Click To TweetThroughout the story, the heroine’s father is controlling and manipulative. Readers are primed to see him as the villain and are rooting for her stand up to him and cut off the relationship, especially after he threatens her emotionally.

Yet all through their argument at the climax, the heroine believes he’s coming from a place of love. In other stories, that belief would come at the cost of the heroine being in denial of how “bad” he really was. However, that type of conflict is typical—and thus predictable—which can make it feel too emotionally easy and one-note and simplistic.

Instead, in this story, the heroine recognizes that like most parents, he’s scared to see her go down a path that he thinks will get her hurt. In Roni’s capable hands, the trope plays out with such nuance and emotional maturity that it feels realistic—and fresh.

No matter the type of cliché, the problem is when story details play out too predictably. Just as “black as night” is such a cliché that readers don’t bother to stop and process the simile comparison, predictable tropes feel too simplistic, and readers don’t bother to process the story on a deeper level.

On the other hand, clichés that serve the story, that add meaning or understanding or allow us to surprise the reader can be good. A character who speaks in clichés can be an interesting quirk, and a story that exploits the strengths of tropes can sink into readers’ thoughts and memories. *smile*

Are you familiar with story tropes? Have you seen stories that use tropes in predictable or clichéd ways? Have you read stories that twisted the cliché and made a trope feel deeper? What made (or could make) the trope feel less predictable? Can you think of other methods to twist the clichés of a trope?

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ELF

I’ve read and enjoyed several of EJ Russell’s gay romances with their delightful twists on paranormal creatures. I love that one of the characters in her stories is a therapist for supernatural beings and has as his patient a vampire who dislikes the taste of blood and a dragon that won’t hoard. Thanks for another informative post.

Bran Ayres
Bran Ayres

I love that story! Such a great take on the genre.

Sieran

Omg, ELF, THANK YOU FOR THAT RECOMMENDATION! You’re referring to the Fae Out of Water book 1, Cutie and the Beast, right? I’m adding this to my Amazon wishlist. 😊

ELF

Yep! (you’re very welcome) I love this series, and there are a couple more of hers that I have started…one of which featured a demon in a more positive light (Devouring Flame) and another which is a dating service for supernaturals. All of them have that slight twist that makes them a fresh take on familiar tropes!

Deborah Makarios

I love taking a tired old cliché and giving it an unexpected twist, e.g. having a delicately-reared princess thrown in a dungeon by an evil usurper… and then having her blast her way out with homemade gunpowder (made in part with items concealed in her tastefully embroidered tie-on pocket).

Bran Ayres
Bran Ayres

I absolutely love flipping tropes, especially when it comes to certain characters and reader expectations. One of my short stories features the heroine rescuing the hero from an abusive relationship.
I love the idea of layering tropes, it really gives you a lot of fun material to work with when you do this. One of my favorite tropes is the ‘hurt-comfort’ trope (that got its start in fanfiction). I love to layer this in with either enemies to lovers or friends to lovers and fish out of water, which creates some really fun dynamics depending on the characters.

Eliana
Eliana

Oh dear Jami! You make me change my mind about an important point of my plot! I’m writing my fantasy book and there is a sort of prophecy. I have analyzed if it drives the plot and fortunately it seems that the plot stands well alone.
But now the prophecy seems to me worthless and repetitive. The plot goes ahead anyway, why should I include also this?
Thank you for this post and make me think about it 🙂
Eliana

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks!
I just read a romance which played on the trope of Educating Rita – a mature student gets to know her college professor. But in this case the student was already a successful businesswoman. The trope was originally Shaw’s Pygmalion, later adapted as My Fair Lady (this can be pronounced Mayfair Lady, so plays on a rich London district and a poor Cockney accent, the themes of the story.)
The Way You Love Me by Miranda Liasson is that romance.

Sieran

Jami, yes, I enjoy twisting and playing with tropes. I actually don’t know how it’s possible to NOT layer tropes together… Or maybe my muse just likes to mash tropes up in a blender and create fictional smoothies. It’s funny when the tropes’ expectations contradict each other, haha.
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Oh I adore the kind where you make things more nuanced and realistic.
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What I like to do is to keep subverting readers’ trope expectations while keeping things realistic and in-character. It’s really fun. I actually subvert expectations so often, that I sometimes worry that I’m overdoing it and readers will be frustrated. Well, I figure for now that anything is okay, as long as you don’t kill any beloved characters or give tragic endings to any of the main romances.
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Lampshade hanging is one of my favorite tropes, btw. I often use it to signal to readers that I’m aware that XYZ is a trope. We can use the lampshade hanging trope to point to another trope, lol. We can also use the lampshade to indicate that something seems illogical on the surface, but I promise that I’ll explain everything to you later. In fact, I find so much humor and enjoyment from the lampshade hanging trope, that at the moment, this is a trope that I’m not interested in knocking down.
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Btw, I just found out that TV Tropes actually has an entry called the Subverted Trope. XD
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https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SubvertedTrope

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[…] Iain Rob Wright digs into how to be successful in writing horror; and Jami Gold considers story tropes: how do we twist a cliché? For those whose interest lies in writing nonfiction, Tracy Stanley […]

Annabelle Franklin

Great post – but didn’t think much of the TV Tropes site – it needed me to sign in before I could use it, and when I tried to sign in with FB it still wanted me to create an account so I gave up on it. Life’s too short!

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